This is a first around here: The Selfish Seamstress “shares” her blog with a guest blogger! Though admittedly the guest blogger would (rightfully) disagree that the Selfish Seamstress is doing this out of generosity or any understanding of the concept of sharing.
A few days ago, I noticed an insightful and potentially controversial observation from a reader about the current trend of “precious” clothing for women in commercial and DIY fashion. Curious to hear more, I asked reader Inkstain if she would be interested in elaborating upon her perspective for everyone. Lucky for all of us she was up for it, and her writing is fascinating and articulate. Plus she’s really good at putting the Selfish Seamstress in her place! It turns out (and I didn’t know it at the time I invited her to write the post), Inkstain, a.k.a. Dinah Lee Küng, is an award-winning author and journalist! Lucky us, right?? If you enjoy her essay, wander over to her website to learn more about her writing, and maybe pick up a copy of her Orange Prize 2004 nominated work of fiction, “A Visit from Voltaire: A Comic Novel.“
The standard disclaimer: The essay below reflects the opinions and perspectives of the author, and not necessarily those of the Selfish Seamstress blog.
MORE IMPORTANTLY: I welcome your responses to this essay, but please keep the tone of your comments civil and respectful to our wonderful guest blogger regardless of whether you share or disagree with her perspectives. After all, she has spent hours of her time writing something for you!
Little Girl Dressing
By Dinah Lee Küng
Is Selfish lazy as well as too selfish to sew for others? She’s asked me to guest post, which is another way of saying, “Do my job for me while I slack off and shop for wedding garters.” I guess I should ask for something in return, like she herself recommends in a recent post, but in fact, I won’t. She’s too little to pick on. Nyah, nyah, snark, snark.
Despite my superior height, I’m going to bend to her will and expound on something that has been bugging me as I watch certain blogs and store websites. I won’t name names, but you know the brands and styles I was thinking of when I commented to Selfish last week, “What’s with this generation of grown women who want to wear dresses I would have assigned to nobody over eight years old? It’s hard for me to wrap my head around the idea of adult females wearing birthday party frocks. As fashion morphed from one look to another, it’s suddenly landed on a very strange planet for those of us who’ve matured through the power woman of the 80’s, the grunge hippie of the 90’s and the retro of the noughties. I would never have predicted this turn of events. But now there’s no denying it. American fashion has elected Shirley Temple as the icon of the new decade?”
Am I just jealous? I’m too old to wear flouncy, full-skirted dresses that look like they go with pinatas and party favors, but I have to break it to you. Unless you’re still waiting to try on your first training bra, so are you.
Not that darling-little-girl dressing doesn’t have an honorable pedigree in American history. Notice, I didn’t say fashion. Let’s start with that hugely popular silent film actress, “Baby Mary.”
She was the biggest star of her own “noughties,” but hers was an image crafted for a largely rural society with a grade-school education and new to “mass media.” Backstage, Mary was known to her dashing husband, the filmstar Douglas Fairbanks Sr and her colleague in co-founding United Artists Studios, Charlie Chaplain as the savvy businesswoman Mary Pickford. Pickford wore little-girl dresses on-screen professionally, playing virginal prey for lustful villains who meant her ringlet-haired character no good. Watching her virtue threatened was a kind of cheap thrill in those days, but definitely a spectator sport, and pretty much everybody was in on the joke.
So much so, in fact, that the childish hair, the rouged cheeks, the ruffles and flounced dresses as sicko code were rightfully parodied in the hilariously ghoulish horror movie, “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” by a matronly Bette Davis.
But I didn’t think you wanted to look like that…
American fashion toyed with ruffles or “charming touches” on dresses in the thirties and up to WWII, but with great success, because designers kept the silhouette fitted to a womanly form, highlighting the hips with a flattering bias drape to hems below the knees. No overkill, just charm. There’s no inherent problem with ruffles, bibs, puffs or lace, or as Dior dramatically demonstrated in the late 40’s, a cinched waist and full skirt. But one of the above goes a very long way. In the late 40’s and fifties, America wanted to recapture its pre-war innocence and send women back to the kitchen to free up factory jobs for the men, and so dressed up the classic shirtwaist look with homey touches.
Okay, I can go with Shirley Jones as Laurie in Oklahoma, because she’s supposed to be, you guessed it, virginal prey, with the honorable cowhand Curly fighting back the lustful, sweaty farmhand Judd.
Her dresses feature girlish items, but not too much, there’s a long skirt, or dark jacket or something to signal that she’s going to be a woman soon enough. And for her post-wedding trip, yup, Laurie wears a form-fitting dark tailor-waist suit with dashing hat. Message: American women aren’t permanent virgins.
But “charming details,” all piled on, all together? You end up with, gulp, Margy Frakes, the innocent farm girl at a country agricultural jamboree in the cloying musical “State Fair.” Rent this DVD, but I warn you, the viewing is not for those suffering from sugar intolerance. Margy parades the most god-awful succession of little-girl fashions I’ve ever seen on film, complete with piping, ruffles, petticoats, pin-tucks, lace and puffed sleeves, full skirts and bows, bows, bows. It’s to gag for.
Margy is played by Jeanne Crain and wooed by the “worldly” and ambitious newsman played by Dana Andrews, Very sweet, but the message of Margy’s Wardrobe is not, I hope, your message: I’m a tasteless rube wearing clothes sewn on my mother’s treadle machine back at the farm, while I wait to be rescued by a guy headed for Chicago. It’s almost unbearable to watch Margy twist her curls around and around and around. She even sucks on straws.
My condemnation of birthday-cake dressing has nothing in common with my admiration for the venerable lure of the “innocent” white collar and cuffs on a dark dress that lends a clerical authority to the “teacher look”–quite the contrary. There we’re not dealing with a schoolgirl, but rather the smoldering librarian you could kiss in the stacks. That’s a look Chanel got from the nuns of her upbringing and only current scandals about my faith prevent me from going on here about the now-discredited “I’ll spank you” allure. But if you don’t believe me that strict “innocent and puritanical” can be sexy, watch Ginger Rogers teach Fred Astaire to dance in Swing Time, wearing the look in white collar over flowing black georgette.
No, I’m objecting to the perverse effect of trying to shove a woman’s bosom and hips underneath a party-skirt, ruffles, puffed sleeves, Liberty Cotton farm dresses, and all manner of fussy stuff at the same time—that looks cute on 5-year olds only. In the fifties, Elia Kazan and Tennessee Williams co-produced a movie that was condemned as the most offensive and sexually corrupt movie of its day, “Baby Doll,” where two very grown men compete for the attentions of Carroll Baker playing an over-ripe virgin with less than her full quota upstairs.
Yes, thank heavens for little girls! as Maurice Chevalier sings in Gigi. There’s a valid American showbiz tradition behind that too-childish dress you’re eyeing in the shop window that’s been used by costume designers for a century. For all its cutesy disingenuousness, that dress may be sending a time-honored signal and here it is, in all its unflattering, unsavoury and mutton-dressed-as-lamb fetishism. “I’m inexperienced (or worse, sexually retarded), and prey for lonely, older men who are scared of grown-up females.”
Anybody for a lollipop?